Can you make a sows ear into a silk purse?
One of my favorite colleagues, a rare and talented survivor of the incredible finicky antiques trade regularly makes jokes about the idiocy that crosses the sales rooms. He likes to joke about making a silk purse and the other one fairly commonly used is “as never was” meaning a piece is tarted up beyond recognition. For the early original antique pieces most where primarily functional. Over time the styles became more elaborate. The painful truth is often an honest large chest or console is made remarkable by the addition of gilding, painting, new feet, marble tops and elaborate boarders incorporating antique elements. At this moment the wizardry is no longer profitable as the pieces do not sell like they used to. Fashion has led us to a place where the honest richly patinated provincial piece is more easily sold than the fussier pieces popular in the 1980’s and part of the 90’s.
I am working on sourcing a good restorer to clean a large 200 year old painting of an aristocrat. The last person I spoke with thought the work could be accomplished in a few days and that the rate was $140 an hour. It would be easy to spend thousands on a painting worth slightly more. This will not magically become a master work. It is a good possibly provincial painting that will not sell easily. What to do? I can ask Eric to do the work but he avoids such large projects and it is hard to know if the expense will result in a more salable piece.
About 15 years ago we bought a monster chest in Denmark. The restorer knew exactly what was required. We try to avoid “fakes” or at least make fair representations about the pieces. The monster chest became an elegant pair of chests with gold leaf accents and new old marble tops. We sold the pair as made of antique elements with alterations and additions. We explained that they where a popular style of fake. They sold immediately to a good designer. So I guess it is possible to take a pigs ear and end up with something impressive.
About 130 years ago there was a scholar that managed to pull quite a few masterpieces from the barns of Italy and France. Over time the secret to his amazing discoveries was uncovered. As the painting became theoretically more valuable scholarship and scientific analysis revealed that some one was taking perfectly fine paintings of dignified older women and transforming them into doe eyed beauties. An interesting old painting of grandma was not easily sold for much. A portrait of a young beauty had a good number of potential buyers. For a while every time I visited a certain museum the attributions had changed. Usually the pictures where shifted to the basement of the museum. No point in upsetting donors or spending the money to resurrect / restore a work that would not be shown.
San Francisco is blessed with a very good asian art museum. The core of the collection came from one man that had a very acquisitive nature. A while ago the museum was moved down across from city hall. Not everything he bought was museum quality. Over the years we have had fun selling the deaccessioned works for greatly reduced prices. My favorite story comes from a retired curator. He me a man in SE Asia that claimed to have carved several pieces in this museum. At this point his carving days where over. He insisted his work was museum quality. A quick review identified the creations and they where moved to the basement.
Late in the 19th century a group of exceptional craftsmen reproduced some of the best work made in France in the 18th century. The quality was and is so high that these pieces regularly sell for more than the price of an original. France had become exceptionally wealthy and the Belle Epoque called for amazing furniture and decoration. This was about when Paris became the City of Lights. Happy Hunting